SMOKE: Black Gold Mercenaries
Originally published: 3 September 2004
In 1968 the tiny West African nation of Equatorial Guinea - bordered to the South by Gabon and Cameroon to the North - seceded from colonial Spain and became a republic. Bad mistake.
The place became a shambles on the back of extensive corruption, impoverishing the vast majority of the country.
In 1979 current president Obiang Nguem Mbasogo - a reported cannibal - overthrew his uncle in a military coup (details are sketchy on whether he ate him or not), and has ruled the country ever since.
In 1995 the country was in dire straits, when all of a sudden some bloke - tripsing along happily in the noonday sun - tripped over a rock and discovered oil, and as it turned out the place was sitting on an ocean of black gold.
10 years down the line the place is rolling out 350,000 barrels of oil a day, making it the third-largest oil producing country in Africa.
You can bet your baby finger that the new-found wealth of the country has not filtered its way down to the poor and needy - Obiang has a reported personal fortune of around £3-billion, which you would expect from a bloke who runs his country through torture, political assasination (followed by big ol' human barbies) and kickbacks to relatives.
The rest of his country - on average - earns around £1 a day.
But that's Africa for you. As I always say - if you don't like living in the styx then move outta the styx, fellas. Easier said than done, I guess.
Once oil was discovered naturally the problems started. As with anyone who suddenly wins the lotto, the country became flooded with folks wanting to "lend a hand" and make sure it all "turned out for the best".
Big oil concerns in the US are reported to have made significant financial payments directly into Obiang's personal bank accounts and let me assure you those cheques weren't for the upliftment of rural communities or for public amenities or for health care reform.
It makes sense for other countries to form alliances with non-Arab oil-producing states - if the Middle East for any reason chose to shut off oil supply to the West, the world would come crashing down almighty quick.
Besides - everyone loves an African dictator. They have absolutely no agendas other than their own coffers, which means they can be bought if the prices are right. Boost their ego a little, along with a nice cash gift, and you might just find yourself with that lucrative contract you've been vying for.
There are a lot of people who want a piece of that action.
Not to mention, it would seem, our good pal Mark Thatcher, who moved to Cape Town in 1995. He was arrested at his Constantia home last week by the Scorpions, South Africa's elite corruption-busting police unit, and charged with contravening the country's Foreign Military Assistance Act by bankrolling the coup to the tune of one Russian military helicopter.
Thatcher was fingered after a South African arms dealer - Nick du Toit, on trial for his life in Equatorial Guinea for his involvement in the coup attempt - claimed in his testimony that Thatcher had met with former Eton pal Simon Mann in July 2003 to discuss financing the purchase of military helicopters for mining operations in the Sudan.
The significance of his testimony was that Mann had just been arrested in Zimbabwe where he is currently on trial for attempting to purchase illegal arms, so clearly Mann wasn't all that interested in helicopters for mining in the Sudan.
He was touching down in Zimbabwe to round up illegal arms along with a bunch of other good old boys, all of whom had South African passports, and all of whom were mercenaries.
They claimed they were en route to the Democratic Republic of the Congo for a security operation, and if that's the case then I'm Canaan Banana.
To backtrack a little...
A meeting was called in London last year by Mann, in which he got together a bunch of British millionaires and asked them to invest in his little African project, promising serious kickbacks.
Spurred on by a surprisingly good response an advance party of mercenaries - led by Mann - went to DRC to meet with exiled Equatorial Guinea leader, Severo Moto Nsa, who was supposed to be bringing arms to the party (guess who the next president of Equatorial Guinea was going to be?).
But he was nowhere to be found, so in a funk Mann headed down south to Zimbabwe to meet up with the main bunch of mercenaries - 69 of them in total - while the rest of his party went on ahead to Equatorial Guinea, where they were promptly arrested and charged with illegal possession of arms and explosives, terrorism, treason and endangering the public.
On touching down in Zimbabwe, Mann was met by the Zimbabwean army instead of his band of brothers and he and the 69 other mercenaries were put on trial.
Most of them were acquitted after pleading to lesser charges of violating the immigration and civil aviation laws of Zimbabwe, but Mann still awaits his sentencing on further charges of attempting to possess dangerous weapons.
It's like a bloody Frederick Forsythe novel. Ever read The Dogs Of War? This is it.
Of course - Mann's case isn't helped by the fact that he was the bloke who started Executive Outcomes, the Johannesburg-based rent-a-mercenary gang of ex-apartheid era military misfits.
Put it this way: he doesn't spend his life doing magic shows at kiddies parties.
When one draws the dots one assumes that Thatcher wasn't donating money for helicopters simply because he has a big heart and thought his mate might need them - there would have been a conversation at a cabana somewhere between Thatcher and Mann, in which all sorts of promises would have been made for when the new government was in power.
By kicking out the old dictator and putting in a puppet one of your own means you have a big say in government affairs. Government affairs in Equatorial Guinea have lots and lots to do with oil, and therefore money, and puppets don't mind being puppets as long as they're stinking rich puppets.
Thatcher - naturally - has denied all of the above. But according to the Scorpions - when they arrested him at 7am there were suitcases stacked with belongings standing in the hallway, the house had been sold and tickets had been purchased for the whole family to Dallas, Texas.
Guess who was getting out fast.
While Thatcher remains under house arrest pending his trial, the wife and kids have buggered off with the tickets and are happily getting fat on deep fry while hubby faces the biggest crisis since getting lost in the desert for six days during the 1982 Paris-Dakar rally.
Not too much love lost there, by all accounts.
There are whisperings that another of the alleged financial backers was none other than Jeffrey Archer, after legal documents were seized which showed payments to a company called Logo Logistics (owned by none other than - surprise surprise - Simon Mann), by one JH Archer.
We'll have to wait and see how that one pans out.
So there you go - Africa: playground of the idle and filthy rich.
I just find it all so unnecessary. Mickey T could have gone down to his local Engen and simply asked for a can of the best. I mean - I get oil as easily as that, without having to bankroll coups in western African countries run my mad cannibals.
And I don't even have a fancy house in Constantia, nor a Mum who once declared war on Argentina. Sheesh - some folks are just never satisfied.
I can't say where it will end for Mark, but one thing I do know for sure:
All Smoked Out,